In 2006 George Miller, Warren Coleman, Judy Morris, and John Collee brought us “Happy Feet,” which proved that despite being confined to the barren, icy wasteland of Antarctica, penguins can have fun too (usually by singing radio hits). Despite mild controversy over the film’s environmentalist stance and its supposed polar reconstruction of an urban environment (more conservative audience members also finding it “anti-God, pro-homosexuality and racist”), the jukebox musical, which was dedicated to Nick Enright, Michael Jonson, Robby McNeilly Green, and Australian television personality and wildlife expert Steve Irwin, won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. And given the current state of affairs in Hollywood, it’s not surprising that Miller is back at the helm for Happy Feet Two, a sequel written by Coleman, Gary Eck, and Paul Livingston. But this time around, the only thing thinner than the ice is the plot the protagonists are forced to dance around.
We return to Antarctica in this second installment, where song and dance remains an important part of the Emperor Penguin world. The film is set years after the original and we’re reunited with Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), The Master of Tap, and Gloria (the late Brittany Murphy, who first voiced the character, is replaced by singer-songwriter Pink), his flightless beau, who have started their own pedigree. However, unlike the rest of the flock, their son Erik (voiced by Ava Acres) is choreophobic. Reluctant to dance, he runs away and meets Sven (Hank Azaria), a penguin revered for his unnatural ability to fly, and Erik’s new role model — a title that his soft-spoken and family oriented father desperately tries to cling to. But when violent shifts in the glacial landscapes begin to threaten the Emperors’ survival, it’s up to Mumble to showcase his guts and grit and unify the creatures of the land for the fight against nature.
There’s no ignoring Happy Feet Two as a visual delight. With fantastic presentation and excellent choreography, even the most chaotic dancehall-esque scenes are cohesive. The colors are very vibrant and there’s an astonishing amount of earth textures. And character models, although not too varied, are nuanced and detailed. Now if only the filmmakers had made something substantial out of this eye-candy.
Like a lot of family fare, there’s father-son angle that is meant to spark conversation amongst the children who kicked and screamed for the opportunity to be taken to the movies, and dads who caved-in after hours of harassment. The theme, and how the filmmakers approach it, is nothing special, and Erik and Mumble aren’t half as resonant or masterfully voiced as their Pixar counterparts, although they’re tolerable enough to invest in. And of course there’s an ecofriendly moral, which is a tad forced, and is almost recycled straight from the first film.
Fortunately, Miller introduces a handful of new, far more interesting, characters, and in a parallel plot we learn how bad crustaceans have it in Antarctica, where directionless collectivism runs rampant. Come to think about it, it’s not such a stretch that if they did, in fact, have the capacity for human emotion, being at the bottom of the food chain would result in a lost sense of purpose. It doesn’t help that each one is in a biomass of billions of indistinguishable replicas. However, Will the Krill is different, and alongside his best bud, Bill, he decides to establish a sense of identity by storming off into the deep unknown. The duo is the standout of a very “meh” production, and their underdog story is far more approachable than the main plotline. A lot of my admiration stems from superb writing. This part of script has a very sarcastic, almost pseudo-introspective tone, and Will’s first monologue reflects that, sounding like something out of an Ayn Rand novel (though I’m also a sucker for corny puns). While at the same time, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, the voice actors for Will and Bill, have a lot of chemistry together, making me wonder what it must’ve how fun it must’ve been to be in the recording studio with the actors.
Problem is that there aren’t more of these idiosyncratic moments in Happy Feet Two. Nothing separates it from the horde of other movies starring cute, talking animals. And, for the most part, the themes and characters are standard for most animated features — namely focusing on the important of friendship and teamwork — while the plot is just incredibly predictable and somewhat unrewarding (some of the musical numbers feel like they were only added to compensate for a story never goes anywhere new). Still, although innovation isn’t Miller’s strong suit, and I wasn’t all too impressed, I still found myself decently entertained. It might not be another Academy Award winner, but, as pure escapism, it’s surely a krill.